June 19 2014

Resetting the Obama Foreign Policy

Rachel DiCarlo Currie

If you’re looking for a “go to” writer on foreign affairs -- someone who consistently delivers informative, high-quality commentary devoid of partisan spin -- you should bookmark Walter Russell Mead’s page at the American Interest website. Always a voice of reason and cool-headed analysis, Mead was warning about Boko Haram before most Americans had ever heard of the Nigerian terror group, and his coverage of the Syrian civil war has been superb. A self-identified Democrat, he is difficult to pigeonhole ideologically; suffice it to say that Mead has offered tough but fair-minded critiques of both President Bush and President Obama.

Not surprisingly, he recently called for a “reset” of President Obama’s foreign policy. Writing shortly before jihadists from “the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria” (ISIS) took over the Iraqi cities of Mosul, Tikrit, and Tal Afar, Mead summarized the 44th president’s record of ineptitude:

The reset with Russia ended with Putin mounting the most brazen land grab in Europe since World War Two. The pivot to Asia brought us to the point where tense standoffs over half a dozen disputed sites in the waters off China have turned into potential flash points, and where senior Chinese generals use the harshest rhetoric against the United States since before Nixon’s visit to Beijing. Al-Qaeda is no longer “on the run” according to as sober a source as the Financial Times; it’s in its best shape since October 2001 by some analyses. The Syria horror continues to grow more intense and the consequences, more dire; Western intelligence agencies say they are unable to track the activities of thousands of Western passport holders now being trained in the finer points of jihad as they fight against Assad. The Israeli-Palestinian peace process is in ruins despite major pushes by the President in each of his two terms. Saudi Arabia is cold to the Administration’s regional policy. Libya is a disaster. Years of “democracy promotion” in Egypt revealed the depth of American illusions about the Arab Spring and exposed the limits of our influence in Egypt. Congressional support for the Administration’s Atlantic and Pacific trade initiatives appears to be withering away. The President’s surge in Afghanistan (the war, let it be remembered, that he called a just and necessary war and vowed to win) is faltering ingloriously as officials race to redefine “success” faster than conditions deteriorate on the ground.

It increasingly looks as if Secretaries Clinton and Gates made the right move in getting out when they did. The contrast between the hope of the first term and the change of the second could not be more marked. But for the President and his embattled team contemplating the new world disorder, the going keeps getting tougher. And it’s not just that the foreign news makes for unpleasant reading; the sense that the President’s foreign policy has gone seriously awry is undercutting his authority at home and contributing to the GOP’s chances of taking the Senate and blocking the President’s agenda during his remaining two years.

After ISIS seized the aforementioned Iraqi cities, Mead lamented how frequently the Obama White House has been caught off guard by crises abroad:

The worst news about Iraq comes from Washington, where we learn in the pages of the Wall Street Journal that senior White House officials acknowledge that these events have surprised them. They apparently had no idea that the Iraqi army was a hollow shell, that ISIS was planning something, and that the sectarian war was about to take a dramatic lurch for the worse.


It is amazing what this White House does not know. It did not know that Putin was planning to take over Ukraine; indeed, it thought that its policy of a reset with Russia was paying off and that Russia was becoming a partner for peace. It did not know that Saudi Arabia was preparing to help the Egyptian army oust a democratically elected government the United States was determined to support.

One wonders what else the wizards now running American foreign policy don’t know. Do they understand what Iran’s Supreme Leader is thinking? Do they know what Beijing thinks of their intelligence and resolution, and what plans it may be forming in response?

The default response from Obama apologists tends to be: “Well, at least he’s not George W. Bush.” And to be fair, critics of President Obama’s foreign policy should acknowledge President Bush’s mistakes. (By the same token, Obama defenders should acknowledge Bush’s achievements.) Mead has not shied away from criticizing the Bush record, but he’s also urged the Obama team to confront reality. As he wrote earlier this week:

There is little doubt that the U.S. and our allies are less secure today than we were on January 20, 2009, when President Obama was sworn in. It isn’t all his fault and he has had some real successes as well as failures along the way, but one can only hope that the folks inside the White House and in the President’s inner circle have the honesty and clarity of mind to acknowledge that American foreign policy isn’t going very well right now -- not in Afghanistan, not in the Middle East, not in North Africa, not in the Russian borderlands, not where China seeks to extend its reach.

The world has caught fire on President Obama’s watch, and while he wasn’t the arsonist who lit the match, he’s the man in charge of putting the conflagration out. The world, and the American voters, will be watching to see how he responds.

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